Bloomington, MN — It is called officially The Mall of America and unofficially the Megamall. After spending several hours touring this domed merchant city of nearly 400 stores outside Minneapolis I believe the unofficial name is more suitable than what is on the marquee. The Megamall is so large, so diverse, so overwhelming in its composite sensual envelopment — sound, color, motion, light, scents, dimension — that a frame of reference for one’s reaction is not immediately at hand. Certainly, the elaborate 16 page insert in the Minneapolis Star/Tribune of August 9th could not do it justice, much less essay any criticism. All the descriptions I read of this marketing Gigantism did not prepare me for the reality of what suddenly confronts a visitor.
Enter the Megamall and you’ll see a seven acre Knott’s Camp Snoopy taking up seven acres and four stories to make room for a roller coaster, new fangled type ferris wheel, other entertainments of similar bent and a towering Snoopy. Trees, bushes and other plants abound — the guide used the description “3000 units” to quantify this transplanted biosphere.
Seven acres is only part of this 78 acre Mall and its 13,000 parking spaces. The owners except this cluster of stores, shops, restaurants, 14 cinemas, amusement park, 3 playhouse theatres, 3 nightclubs, bookstores, winding around hallways called East Broadway, South Avenue to gross some $650 million in its first year and receive over 40 million shoppers from Japan to Ontario. In case you need to take a deep breath at this dazzling physical bubble, there is a complete circulation of air four times an hour reassures my patient guide.
One hundred years or so ago, the first large department stores revolutionized retailing. The Megamall is a larger jump, so large a leap that it ran out of chain retailers and had “to build its own entrepreneurs,” in the guide’s words.
To be sure, there are the Sears, the Nordstroms, the Macy’s and the Bloomingdale’s. But there are also 44 carts (peddlers they used to be called) paying, $1500 a month to sell their wares. There is a shop that sells only butterflies (inorganic) and a shop that sells only mattresses, an enclave that displays but does sell a model train network. There is a store that offers only candles and a cart that does only your caricature.
There is a HMO clinic, a hotel to be built, a pharmacy and dry cleaners to be leased. A recycling center challenges your knowledge of the subject and the guide proudly shows the numerous bins for separating trash.
The 150,000 people who came to the Mall that first Saturday were families and faraway tourists, teenagers and sightseers. It almost seemed as if more people were touring than buying, but that can be expected in the first week.
One of the sporting good stores is Oshman’s — a mere 65,000 square feet of “Try It Before You Buy It” marketing. To prove they mean their slogan, they provided you with a small basketball court, hockey rink, archery room, a roller blade rink and a golf simulator.
A branch of the Ojibway Tribe rents an enclave devoted to teaching innocents how to gamble (blackjack and slot machines) so they may take one of three shuttles a day to the Reservation’s gambling casino.
There was one enclave of tranquility away from elbow-to-elbow people. It is called The World of Mammoths — a natural history exhibit of Ice Age animals from the Museum of St. Petersburg, Russia. The curator, speaking through a translator, sadly observed that Americans don’t seem to be interested in his animals. Even the children don’t come, he said.
The mammoth mall’s employees number between 7500 and 10,000 people, depending on peak hours and days. The workers we met seemed very enthusiastic and alert to their customers. Shopping hours are from 7 am to 1 am, seven days a week.
The privatization of “Main Street” has broken new frontiers at Bloomington. No citizen leaf letting or peaceful picketing is allowed inside the mall. It is allowed on Main Street, USA. But is a mall of this size really the kind of private property that can exclude the assertion of constitutional rights of free speech and petition?
This question, as a matter of physical scale, has been decided both ways by different courts in the past 25 years. But, lo, another factor merits consideration. The city of Bloomington put over one hundred million dollars of taxpayer investment into this mall — land, parking structures, site grading, etc. This public investment is not given a share in the profits; it is a taxpayer subsidy based on additional sales taxes and bonds.
All this can start a visitor thinking, even before the anthropologists arrive to talk about what such sheer size (not to mention the constant background noise roar) does to any sense of community and human scale interaction.
I’d go back again just to start mulling over the prospects of our becoming an America of malls in the coming years.